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The Truth About Me—A Hijra Life Story

Book Review By Yoginder Sikand

08 August, 2010

Name of the Book: The Truth About Me—A Hijra Life Story

Author: A. Revathi
Publisher: Penguin (India), New Delhi
Year: 2010

Pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0-143-06836-5
Price: Rs. 299
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Sexual minorities the world over continue to suffer various forms of prejudice and discrimination—at the hands of the state and the wider society—even in countries where they are legally recognized and their rights are guaranteed by law. In India, where these minorities are not even deemed to exist—at least legally—their harrowing plight remains unknown to the heterosexual majority—who, in any case, remain, by and large, not just indifferent but even relentlessly hostile to them. Few members of India’s sexual minority communities—gays, lesbians, bisexuals and hijras or the ‘third gender’—dare, for fear of being scorned and much worse, to stand up and be publicly identified, leave alone struggle for their rights and the injustice and prejudices that they are haunted with throughout their lives. Gender-rights activists and some human rights groups have only recently begun turning their attention to these communities, and that too only very haltingly.

This book enjoys the rare distinction of being the first book ever to have been written by an Indian hijra. In her autobiography, Revathi, now a prominent hijra rights activist with a sexual minority NGO based in Bangalore, recounts the horrors of her tumultuous, terror-filled life. Born a male in a peasant family of modest means in a village in Tamil Nadu, Doraisamy (as he was named by his parents) discovered—as many gay men do—in early childhood itself that he was very different from the other boys of his village. At school, he shunned boys’ games, preferring to play with girls and dressing up like a woman in his mother’s clothes. As the years passed by, instead of his ‘feminine’ ways falling aside, as his parents had hoped, Doraisamy increasingly began to feel that he was actually a girl, although trapped, for no fault of his own, within a male body. And the more ‘feminine’ he dressed and behaved the more he was taunted by his peers at school and his parents and siblings at home. He had no one to share his pains with till at last he met a group of young gay men in a town near his village. For the first time, he discovered that he was not alone in this world, not the only boy who felt and behaved like a girl. From these men he discovered that it was indeed possible for a boy to become a girl, or, more precisely, a hijra—a eunuch.

In his late teens Doraisamy fled his home, unable to bear the constant torments that he had to suffer on a daily basis from his family and neighbours. He took a train to Delhi, where he found himself in a world completely different from his little Tamil village. There he met a group of hijras, who took him under their wing. He began living as a member of the hijra household, observing the various rituals and customs specific to the hijra community—which the book describes in intricate detail. Finally, the head or guru of the hijra household agreed to initiate him into the community—or, in other words, to make him her chela or disciple—by allowing him to have his male sexual organs removed. There are two ways to do this: either by doctor who does a surgical excision in a hospital or by a hijra dai using a primitive and painful method. The latter is dangerous, and can even sometimes be fatal, but men who become hijras in this manner are accorded greater respect in the hijra community. Doraisamy chose the former. The operation was short and swift, but still excruciatingly painful, and within two hours Doraisamy was transformed into the ‘woman’ he always wanted to be—or, to be more precise, the ‘woman’ he always felt, and even knew, he was. Christened Revathi by her guru, she now became a full-fledged member of the hijra community, no longer just a kothi, an effeminate male.

Revathi had hoped that once she turned into a ‘woman’, or a hijra, she would at last be at peace with herself. But, she soon discovered, life as a hijra was tough, even cruel. She describes in painful detail the sordid life in her guru’s home, the constant quarrels with her gurubais, fellow hijra disciples of her guru, who are sexually and economically exploited by the latter, the threats and violence from men in the streets, the abuses she had to constantly suffer from strangers for being a hijra, a veritable outcast, the desperate poverty that most hijras have to face because no one is willing to employ them. She took to doing badai-work, singing and dancing at people’s homes on the occasion of a birth or a marriage, a custom, now rapidly dying out, that accorded a measure of respect to hijras in traditional Indian society. But what she earned from this work was meagre, hardly sufficient to make her ends meet. Thereupon, she joined a group of fellow hijras to go from shop to shop asking for money and food, but there she had to contend with relentless harassment and a relentless barrage of insults.

Meanwhile, she discovered her sexual desires—as a ‘woman’—but soon realized that although she pined for a normal ‘life’ as a married ‘woman’, no man would ever take her as his wife. Finally, she was forced, like many other hijras, to take to sex-work to survive and also in the hope of finally finding the love of a man. She shifted to Mumbai, where she took up with a hijra household, becoming the chela of a hijra guru who headed a team of sex-workers, both women as well as hijras.

Life as a hijra sex-worker, which Revathi describes in painful detail, is brutal. She speaks of the horrific degradation that she had to suffer—at the hands of fellow hijras and their gurus as well as drunken men and the police. Hauled to a police station, she is brutally assaulted sexually. A rowdy rapes her and robs her meager possessions. A bunch of thugs threatens to kill her. She seeks refuge in bars, and becomes a compulsive drinker. Life as a hijra is one never-ending series of torments, and the man she had dreamt would one day find her and take her as his spouse never enters her life. Finally, unable to bear her hellish existence any longer, she escapes and goes back home to her village, expecting her family to comfort her. Once there, however, she realizes that she is dead as far as they are concerned. The scorn that she meets at their hands is hardly less tormenting than what she had to put up with as a sex-worker in Mumbai. She stays in her village for a few months, but by now she has developed the inner confidence to fight back. When people insult her, she no longer remains silent as she used to. A hijra is also human being, worthy of respect, she answers back, and tells her tormentors to lay off.

A major turning point in Revathi’s life occurs when, after shifting from her village to Bangalore, where she works for a time selling her body, she meets with activists of an NGO working for justice of sexual minorities. The NGO offers her a job, which, though modestly-paid, she takes up in order to finally escape the brutal life as a sex-worker. She starts off as a peon of sorts, doing odd jobs in the office, but her grit and intelligence win her greater responsibilities in the organization, where she begins to realise that an alternate life is indeed possible for people like her. She attends activist meetings and reads literature about hijras like herself, where she learns that hijras, like other marginalized communities, can and must stand up for their rights. They deserve the same rights as everyone else, she now knows: to be recognized by the state as equal citizens, to have ration cards, to vote and stand for elections, to study and be decently employed, to marry and adopt children, and to be free of hate, scorn and prejudice. She begins mobilizing her fellow hijras on these lines.

Revathi’s new-found joy, of being liberated from begging and sex-work that is forced on hijras by society that denies them any other means of livelihood, and of working for her own community proves to be short-lived, however. Both her guru and her own chela are found murdered, in separate incidents—both fall tragic victims to brutal thugs. To add to her misery, the man—who claims to be a bisexual—who marries her, an activist in the NGO she works with, abandons her some months despite his previous professions of love for her and despite her profound dedication to him. She finds, to her horror, that she is now all alone in the world. Instead of caving in and giving up, however, she defies the heavy odds that she faces. She does this by deciding to write her autobiography, to tell the world what life for hijras is all about, and to insist that society and the state must give them their due.

This book—very ably translated from the Tamil by V. Geetha, a noted Chennai-based feminist—is provocative and gripping, and, at the same time, awe-inspiring. Throughout the book, as Revathi describes her terror-filled life, she does not plead for pity, though. All she asks is for others to recognize and treat hijras as fellow humans, with the same hopes and desires as everybody else. The frankness and fearlessness with which she discusses even the most ‘private’ aspects of her life as a hijra—the details of her sex-change operation, her sexual encounters with her customers, the brutal sexual assault by the police and so on—is striking and admirable. Her critique of social constructions of gender and dominant notions of masculinity—bereft of theoretical jargon, and, precisely because of this, lucid and compelling—is a powerful plea for us to radically re-consider what it means to be male and female at the same time as it urges us to seek the third way—of transcending the rigid binary division between male and female and work towards a notion of humanness beyond and above gender as conventionally understood.